Last year, after years of frustration for officials in Keene and elsewhere, state lawmakers finally managed to pass legislation to allow municipal bonding for broadband improvements. The bill, a compromise crafted largely thanks to the efforts of Keene Sen. Jay Kahn after his initial attempt failed the previous year, seemed tilted enough toward telecommunications companies that it seemed likely any cities or towns taking advantage of it would begin by dipping a toe in to test the waters.
Saturday, Chesterfield officials effectively announced they’re fearlessly jumping in.
The plan, detailed by budget committee member and former Selectman Brad Roscoe, calls for a specific broadband provider — Consolidated Communications — to guarantee the town’s bond in exchange for recouping the amount through a monthly fee to customers in the town. It’s an innovative approach that would keep local taxpayers from being hit up for the infrastructure costs while allowing the company to test a new revenue model.
Following the bill’s passage, the town put out a request for proposals for the needed infrastructure improvements. Three firms responded, including Consolidated. Its plan offered to guarantee a $1.8 million bond over 20 years and contribute about $2.5 million more to build a town-wide fiber-optic network with speeds up to 1 Gbps. Credit the company for its willingness to extend service to an area usually seen as too sparsely populated to be worth the cost and effort.
We’ve no doubt the company has run the numbers and found it will profit from the deal eventually. But that’s not necessarily the point. Like many area towns, Chesterfield is a small community in a rural part of the state, and having access to high-speed broadband would benefit everyone, from students to medical patients to — especially — businesses. It could spark development and entrepreneurship in town, building the tax base.
No doubt town leaders had such visions when devising the request for proposals. To their credit, they didn’t simply bemoan the leverage telecoms have exerted in Concord in the past to protect their bottom lines. If undertaken, this would be the first application of the new law.
According to Consolidated, broadband service would be offered at prices ranging from $49.99 per month to $199.99 per month, depending on speed and length of commitment. Even with the $10 monthly “infrastructure fee” added to subscribers’ bills, that would be competitive with other area providers. For those experienced in the practice of Internet providers offering a low introductory price, then raising it once customers come to rely on the service, a spokesman at the meeting noted language could be inserted into the agreement the town will eventually sign with Consolidated to protect customers.
Surely that’s something the selectmen will be pondering; even in exchange for a needed leg up, it wouldn’t do to sign off on such a fee in perpetuity. Eventually, the infrastructure will be paid for and a reasonable profit earned by the company.
Such details are still to be worked out, and voters must approve the plan by a two-thirds majority in March.
But with reliable access to broadband a necessary tool for success in the 21st century, this plan holds much promise.